Monday, September 28, 2009

Horsey Reads

It would appear good horse literature is harder to find than good dog (and cat) literature.

Case in point – “Riding Lessons” by media darling Sara Gruen (she of “Water for Elephants” fame).

Annemarie Zimmer is an Olympic bound equestrienne who suffers a near fatal riding accident. Fade to black. We next meet her on the day she is fired, her husband leaves her for the secretary, her mother announces father is dying from Lou Gehrig's disease and her daughter continues to be a very adolescent teen (or the other way around). So mum and daughter take off to the legendary horse farm where she grew – is this sounding like a bad movie, yet? – oh wait, can it be that Annemarie, who has never ridden again since her accident will reacquaint herself with the equine and boyfriend of yore (who is a horse vet, a real man, not like her effeminate lawyer or whatever, husband)? Yes, it can. But since she is also one of most egotistical, unsympathetic, irresponsible and hysterical characters ever, she also finds time to two-time the poor guy with the French horse trainer (this character is soo stereotypical it’s offensive), ignore the fact her father is dying and run the farm to the ground.
Scared? You should be.

Obviously Sara Gruen learnt A Lot (although seemingly intelligent readers disagree) from this first novel (and sequel “Flying Changes”) in order to write the bestseller “Water For Elephants”. However, I’ll just have to take everybody’s word for it – since her very name causes me feelings of literary indigestion.

“Chosen By a Horse” – is actually a very nice book – a memoir of Susan Richards’ life with horses put into motion by her a adoption of a very neglected mare. I actually felt I learned a little about horses with this one (not knowing anything, that is) even though the focus is on the emotional. I liked her childhood memories and the whole moving story of the year she lived with Lay Me Down. I didn’t so much like the part where she starts dating again and encountering the mother of all douche bags, keeps on dating the guy for no understandable reason.

Needless to say my equine-lit hunger was not satisfied. Suggestions welcome.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Jon Katz - Izzy and Lenore

Jon Katz’s “Izzy and Lenore” was not exactly the fun, doggy lit romp I was anticipating. I got more than I bargained for with this one: it’s not just tear-inducing, it’s enervating.

It touches a lot of spots most of us (and I’m definitely in the group) would rather leave in the dark until we’re absolutely forced to confront them: depression, death, loneliness, solidarity and the roles our dogs play in the middle of the confusion that is a well-meaning human being.

Certain animals seem to manifest in our lives at key-junctions: for Katz it was a border collie rescue, named Izzy, so magically attuned to the needs of humans he pushed the author into fulfilling his wish of becoming a hospice volunteer – with a canine aide.

The dying patients that Izzy visited make up for most of the moving chapters in “Izzy and Lenore”. They are mostly elderly, but there is a middle aged man and a little boy. Interestingly, there is only one truly distressing case – a man who has yet, along with his family, to accept that these are his last days. For all the others, acceptance, seems to have brought about a merciful serenity.

Not all dogs are as wonderfully perceptive as Izzy, but they fulfill equally important roles in our everyday lives: as Katz plunges into depression he decides to self-medicate with the addition of a black lab puppy to his menagerie.

It’s not easy to give an opinion on “Izzy and Lenore” not having read any of the author’s previous best-sellers – and it’s even harder because I genuinely thought this would be a happy-go-lucky, shelter-to-sofa, kind of story and well, it wasn’t. It was hard to read at times but absolutely amazing and moving.

I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone – it certainly gave me the blues.

Jiang Rong - Wolf Totem

After I finished “Wolf Totem” I went online in search of reviews. To my surprise critics everywhere seemed (at the very least) hesitant about this great book: most were uncomfortable at the harsh criticism of Chinese mentality (because they're on “our” side now and we mustn’t bother them), many resented the fact that characters talk at length about their world-views (“didactic” is now a four letter word, apparently), and quite a lot were genuinely upset at how long the book is.

I almost let out an audible sigh of relief as I read Jonathan Mirsky’s words for the Literary Review – I might not be as clueless and ignorant a reader as I thought.

Ursula K. LeGuin for the Guardian: “…that is the sorrowful theme of the rest of this long book” (which I honestly cannot believe she actually read, since she doesn’t mention the main theme of young man/ wolf cub relation). And how offensive is this entry line?
“I don't know what it means to sell four million copies of a book in China - that's a lot of books, but there are a lot of Chinese.” – ah yes, the old “there are so many of them” schtick…

Pankaj Mishra for the NY times: “It’s even more remarkable that a novel so relentlessly gloomy and ponderously didactic has become a huge best seller”

German critic Wolfgang Kubin, got so hot and bothered over “Wolf Totem” he deemed it “fascist” …

Literary critics being so much more cultured (clutered?) and informed than the rest of us, have to read this book in light of their extensive knowledge of millennia of Chinese culture and a complete understanding of contemporary politics – however, the rest of us might enjoy it for what it is: a spellbinding tale, that is also cautionary.

Clifford Coonan wrote in the Independent that “Wolf Totem” can be seen as “a moving novel of nomads and settlers and their relation with wolves on the Mongolian steppes, a guide to doing business in New China, an ecological handbook, or a piece of military strategy.”

To me, the strongest motif was one of condemnation of human nature. As we witness Chen Zhen embark on a series of bad decisions, all of them motivated by his very real love of wolves it becomes impossible not to feel strongly that human love and interest often ring the death toll for the object of their attention. Zhen regrets stealing the wolf cubs, leaving the mother bereft and the siblings dead at human hands, he regrets forcing his own bitch to nurse a wolf against her instinct, he regrets keeping the cub chained under the scorching sun, unhappy he cannot run or play with the other puppies, he regrets breaking the wolf’s incisors rendering him useless for a life in the wild and breaking his will with violence. And yet, all the time, the protagonist rationalizes to himself and others that this is the only way to “understand”, to “learn” about wolves.

Is “Wolf Totem” a rant against Chinese culture? Or is the real reason it bothers western mentality so much, the fact that it indicts all of us? Hasn’t our society been built upon the continual destruction of resources without care for the cycles of Nature? Isn’t our relation with animals built in terms of function? – for food, for work, for lab research, for our pleasure and entertainment? Aren’t we all part sheep, part Han Chinese?